Sebastien Torkia

Published in The Stage, September ’11

From Grease and La Cage Aux Folles to Guys and Dolls, Sebastien Torkia is accustomed to appearing in west end musical hits as an actor, singer and dancer. But his latest role involves a whole new challenge – donning a full body costume-cum-puppet to play crazed hyena Ed in theatreland favourite The Lion King.

How did you prepare for the role?

Moving hyena-like on all fours is obviously a lot of physical work, and so is holding two front legs of the puppet and using them to walk on. During rehearsals I spent hours exploring all the possibilities. Because it is a comedic role, the more you can do with the puppet, the more interesting it is – scratching a part of the body with the front leg, or sneezing and spitting with the mask. All little things to make Ed come alive.

Is it difficult performing in a costume?

The costume is like a big overall – a duvet we call it. I am used to doing high energy work as a dancer, so it doesn’t bother me. I don’t tend to think about the bulk of the costumes – they are so well designed and they follow your body. But you need to be in shape and if you are not, doing the show eight times a week will certainly knock you into shape.

What was the audition process?

I had five auditions. The first audition I had to sing and read scenes from The Lion King. It got more intense with each recall and the final audition was with the worldwide creative team –by that point you’re not just acting and singing but working with the puppet to see if you have dexterity and coordination to make it come alive. It adds to the pressure because you’re not that familiar with the puppets and I am not a puppeteer. Maybe at the end of my time at the Lion King I’ll be able to call myself a puppeteer.

Is formal training important?

It is very important. It gives you a good grounding in being able to sustain a career. Training [at the London Studio Theatre] has taught me discipline and respect for the profession – you can get that if you don’t have training but you have to learn it on your own and it can be tough. It’s important to be disciplined because there will be periods when you’re out of work and you have to maintain your skills and be ready to pull it out of the bag. I could get a call at 5 o’clock and have to audition the next day – your muscles, vocal and body, have to be prepared to produce the goods.

What is your dream role?

There are so many. It’s always great fun playing a baddie, and I understudy Scar in The Lion King. It is fun because it is the opposite of you, and you can get away with so much and live your fantasies as the bad guy.

The Lion King celebrates its 5,000th performance on September 13 at the Lyceum Theatre.